Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Slamdance ’12: Ed Wood’s Final Curtain

In recent years, major international filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Agnieszka Holland have branched out into dramatic television in-between their feature work. Cult-film legend Ed Wood had a similar idea decades ago, but alas, for the cross-dressing director, it was not to be. Unseen for fifty-five years, Wood’s long lost spec pilot Final Curtain premiered last night at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Conceived as the first installment of an anthology series called Portraits of Terror, Curtain starts with an appropriately hyperbolic introduction telling viewers the characters to follow are “Creatures to be pitied. Creatures to be despised . . .” We’ve been so warned. There will be no Criswell narration here. However, the protagonist’s wonderfully overwrought voiceovers are handled by Dudley Manlove, another Wood stalwart, recognizable as the snippy alien in Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Curtain chronicles an actor’s fateful night in a dark theater long after the last performance of his play. Naturally, he played a vampire, but for some reason the stage sets resemble a prairie cabin. Of course, for Ed Wood continuity errors, this is small beans. Throughout the run, something supernatural has been calling, calling to him. At last, he faces it or perhaps we are witnessing his descent into madness.

Wood claimed Bela Lugosi died reading his Curtain treatment, which is pretty heavy, considering the general quality of the scripts that came his way. Adding yet another layer of meta-weirdness, Curtain briefly features Jenny Stevens as “The Vampire,” about whom nothing is known aside from her appearance in a previous Ed Wood film, leading some to suspect she was the director’s drag persona.

This might sound incredible, but the darkened backstage setting is actually kind of spooky. Somehow Wood and his crew gained access to a real working theater, so at least the soundboards and orchestra seats are not cardboard cut-outs, listing from side-to-side. The twenty-two minute running time also keeps Wood’s story somewhat focused, not that the actor’s decisions make much sense.

Curtain is pretty much exactly what you think it is. Knowing that it exists and has been preserved for posterity alone justified a trip to Park City. The restoration’s executive producers, Jason Insalaco and Jonathan Harris, are clearly motivated by an abiding love for the Wood canon. In Fact, Insalaco’s uncle was Paul Marco, a long time Ed Wood co-conspirator, known to the faithful for his recurring character, Kelton the cop. A really strange piece of Hollywood history, Curtain should have a long life of midnight screenings in its future. Indeed, its premiere was a real event at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival.